Bruce thought the end of the world would be louder.
Though the silence that filled the Wakandan forest after the reverb of the snap felt like a sound in its own right. He wondered if he’d gone deaf, but the sounds of battle still rang in his ears. The smell of Thanos’s scorched arm reached him even where he was, making him dry heave. Thor stood over the Titan, eyes wide and horrified, still pressing Stormbreaker into Thanos’s chest. Then he was gone, and the axe thudded to the ground as it slipped through Thor’s fingers.
Bruce’s eyes followed Steve as he ran to Thor. His lips moved, but Bruce couldn’t hear him. He was frozen in place where Bucky turned to dust. Bruce didn’t know the Winter Soldier. They never met. But the look on Steve’s face as he lifted his fingers, painted with the dust that was once his friend, was something Bruce knew he wouldn’t forget anytime soon.
There was dust in the sky, he noted, clouds of it, blowing away in the breeze. He wondered if he should move. Part of him was screaming for him to do just that, to do something- he was a doctor, he should be trying to help- but what could he do?
There was a whisper in the back of his mind, a voice that slipped away as quickly as it came. Bruce felt a sickening tug that knocked him off of his feet. His breath stopped as the pull continued, as if a terrible force was ripping every atom in his body in two. He might have screamed, had he been able to manage it, but his mouth seemed to be glued shut. He felt a crumbling, and he raised his hand, expecting to see it dissolve as Bucky and the others had, but his hand was still solid.
It took him a moment to realize what might have happened. It seemed impossible. Hulk- the other guy- was impossible to kill. That was his whole… well, his whole thing.
“Hulk?” He whispered, but there was no response. His head felt empty.
“Bruce? Bruce, are you all right?” Thor’s somewhat frantic voice sounded beside him, and the god’s hand came down on his shoulder, clutching at him, and Bruce’s hand came up to grasp at it. Thor was staring at him with concern, and his eyes brought Bruce back to the present, although his thoughts were still scrambling, still trying to find the other guy. He had to be hiding, Bruce decided. They were having a thing. Just like they had been since he landed back in New York.
He’d be back. He always came back.
“I’m ok,” he responded, letting Thor pull him to his feet. Thor didn’t look as though he fully believed him, but the god of thunder’s own eyes were distant. Eyes- he had two again. Where did he get another eye?
Focus, Bruce, he thought. Thor’s eyes weren’t a priority.
The two of them rejoined the others. Steve sat on the ground, staring blankly at his hand. Natasha was clutching at her side, winded. Broken ribs, he assessed automatically, maybe worse. Rhodey stood off to the side, still in his suit. Bruce had abandoned his own already.
Steve’s voice rang through the forest with a devastating finality. Captain America wasn’t a man to give up, not even when the odds were stacked against him. Was this what finally broke an unbreakable man?
Of course, their jobs weren’t over just because the fight was. There were bodies to collect- some, but not many, not enough to fill the gaps in the ranks of the soldiers, not enough to account for the billions, trillions, that Bruce knew were gone. Half of all life. Half of all life. It echoed in his head like he’d screamed it into a cave, bouncing back and back and back until it was all he could hear. Half of all life.
He went through the motions. He was good at that. Living with anxiety and a monster in your head had forced him to grow accustomed to disassociation. King T’Challa was gone. Princess Shuri was still alive, but injured. Bruce helped treat her wounds. The captain, Okoye, rallied the rest of the troops, arranging for parties to be sent out to the civilians of Wakanda. A count would have to be made, a tally of the survivors.
The only thing tethering him to this plane of reality, much as he wished he could leave it, was Thor. Thor hadn’t left his side since he pulled him off the ground, save for a brief discussion with the raccoon he arrived with. The tree creature was nowhere to be seen, another casualty, if he had to guess.
“The Asgardians?” Bruce asked in a hushed voice. He hadn’t asked before, hadn’t had time since their reunion.
“I don’t know,” Thor said, and his voice shook. “Some got away, with Brunnhilde and Korg. After this, though-”
He broke off, taking a deep breath.
“I don’t know. But they know to come here. If there are any left.”
Bruce didn’t know how to comfort Thor. So much loss in so little time.
The days after the Snap blurred together. Bruce never truly slept. He dozed, or walked around in a half sleeping haze. He was so tired. Always tired, never resting. He’d been tired since Saakar, since his years as the Hulk. His body screamed at him, telling him to rest, and he knew he’d experience consequences for his lack of self care soon enough. He couldn’t bring himself to think it mattered. How could he take care of himself when so many were dead? So many of their own.
They took a tally, the day after the Snap. They knew in their hearts who was gone, he thought, but didn’t want to admit it until they searched. Sam was gone, as was Bucky. Bruce had met Sam, at a few of Tony’s parties, before Ultron. He was a kind man, a solid one, who lived his life trying to improve the world. Now he was gone, and Steve had lost his two best friends in one day.
Wanda was gone, Vision was dead. Vision’s loss hit him the hardest of those two. He hadn’t known either of them well, but he had a hand in Vision’s creation. He was the closest thing that Bruce had- and would probably ever have- to a child, in a strange, messed up way.
Tony and the wizard were lost, along with the kid that had been with them. Whether they’d been blown away in the Snap, or simply stranded on some strange alien planet or drifting in space, Bruce doubted he would see any of them again.
He was the one who broke the news to Pepper. She found them in Wakanda, looking for Tony with a frantic desperation and determination. Those emotions felt alien to Bruce. Any emotion besides despair and numbness felt alien to him now. He was the one to greet her when she got off of the plane, the one to tell her where Tony had gone. He was the last of them to see Tony alive, and it only felt right to be the one to break the news. He wasn’t the one to comfort her when she fell to the ground, sobbing. That was Rhodey.
One again, he was hit by his uselessness. If he’d been able to Hulk out, he could have defeated that strange floating man that had dragged the wizard to the ship, prompting Tony to follow. It was his fault that Tony was gone.
Why couldn’t you just help? He asked instinctively, reaching out for the Hulk’s presence inside of him. Why couldn't you just grow up and do what you were made to do?
But he was met with silence, an empty void in the back of his mind where the Hulk always resided. The feeling made him want to retch. He forced his mind away from it.
He’d be back. He always came back.
Bruce slept that night. It was a week after the Snap, and he didn’t think he’d slept for more than five hours combined. Even his sleep wasn’t restful- Thor found him sleepwalking, wandering outside into the forest. He came to with Thor’s hands on his shoulders, a scream bubbling up in his throat.
“Hey, hey, it's me, just me,” Thor’s rough voice was low, and his hand squeezed Bruce’s shoulder, grounding him. Without the support, Bruce thought he would have simply fallen to the ground.
“Thor, what- where am I?” Bruce asked, glancing around with wide eyes.
“Outside. You were sleepwalking. I saw you from my window.”
Bruce realized his breathing had picked up, and tried to calm himself. But what was the point? If the Hulk wasn’t… around, he could be as panicked as he wanted to be, with no repercussions.
“Bruce, is there… something’s wrong, isn’t it?”
Distracting himself from his sleep deprived internal monologue, Bruce looked at Thor. Really looked at him, maybe for the first time since the Snap.
Thor was tired. Bone tired, the same way he was. The god had dark circles under his eyes, so deeply set that had Bruce not known better he would think it was some sort of medical condition. His hands, strong though they were, wavered slightly, sending gentle tremors down Bruce’s arm. He unconsciously reached up with his own hand, grasping one of Thor’s. Thor relaxed slightly. He was wearing civilian clothes, Bruce noticed, a sweatshirt and sweatpants. It was strange to see him without his cape. Bruce vaguely remembered shoving a pair of clothes at him, one, maybe two days after the Snap. He had to change out of his bloodstained, dust laden clothes.
“You mean besides everything?” Bruce attempted to deflect the question. Thor didn’t let it pass, fixing Bruce with an unwavering gaze.
Bruce sighed, drawing in a shaky breath. “Yes. But it’s not important.”
“If it’s bothering you, it’s important,” Thor said softly. Bruce let out a dry laugh.
“Everything is bothering me, Thor. It’s not important. Not right now.”
His tone must have told Thor that he was done talking about it, or Thor was simply too tired to continue pressing. Either way, he nodded slowly, eyes never leaving Bruce’s face.
“If it becomes important, my friend…” he trailed off.
“If it becomes important, you’ll be the first to know,” Bruce promised. And he meant it. Thor was probably the only person he could even consider confiding in at the moment. He’d been gone from the others for too long. They almost felt like strangers to him. But Thor… he knew Thor.
But there was nothing to talk about. Hulk would be back. He always came back.
Tony was alive. He came back to earth, in a spaceship, carried by Carol Danvers, accompanied by a strange blue woman who called herself Nebula. The wizard, Doctor Strange, was gone, blown away on a planet called Titan. He betrayed them, Tony said in a disbelieving voice, gave the time stone to Thanos in exchange for Tony’s life. The kid was gone too.
Tony was sick, injured, and tired. Bruce did his best to treat his friend, hooking him up to fluids and medication to revive him. Nebula hovered the whole time, never standing close but never out of sight, watching him with strange, unfathomable eyes. She was a jumpy creature, part if not all machine. She carried herself in a way that reminded Bruce of himself. Abuse, he thought, and that suspicion was confirmed when she revealed herself to be a daughter of Thanos. If Bruce thought his father was bad, he could only imagine having the Mad Titan for a father.
As strange as she was, Nebula brought a sliver of hope with her. She knew where to find Thanos. With that information, they devised a plan. A plan to retrieve the stones, bring everyone back. Bruce’s heart soared, hammering inside of his chest with an intensity that surprised even himself.
“Is it possible?” he asked in spite of himself.
“It’s a long shot,” Steve admitted. “But we have to try.”
There was a relief in being back in space, Bruce thought as the ship entered the dark sky. He wasn’t sure what to make of it. He should be scared of space. Last time he’d made a voyage like this, he’d been trapped as the Hulk on Sakaar for two years.
Remember that, big guy? You liked it there, he thought, again reaching for the Hulk’s consciousness within his own. Again, he was met with silence and a sickening void.
He’d thought of the Hulk as a curse for a long time. Something that prevented him from living a normal life, something that only brought pain and destruction. It was only now, faced with the Hulk’s disappearance, that he realized how much he relied on the other guy. He protected Bruce, made Bruce strong even when he felt weak. Without him, Bruce was very aware of his own mortality. It made his stomach drop. How was he expected to face Thanos like this?
Thor sat next to him, a quiet, if looming, presence. He touched Bruce’s hand gently.
“All right?” he asked, keeping his voice low so the others wouldn’t hear.
Bruce nodded. “I’m ok. You?”
They did this once a day now, ever since Thor found him sleepwalking into the woods. The response was always the same. Each of them were fine. How could they not be fine? They were alive. To admit to anything else would be a betrayal to those they were trying to bring back, to those that they failed. But they went through the motions, checking in with each other, reminding each other of their presence.
This time, Thor changed the script.
“Fine. I won’t make the same mistake again.”
This statement was strange, and with the look on Thor’s face, concerning. Anger was a look of Thor’s that Bruce was familiar with. For a time, the god was all rage and fire, a fierce warrior who lived for the fight. On Sakaar, he’d been different, more sunshine than fire, despite the atrocities that he was facing. After Ragnarok, he’d been quieter, more serious, anger turned to determination to do right by his people.
This stone cold fury, detached and hard, was new.
Bruce was angry too, he found out. It came to life, hard and blazing in the pit of his stomach, when they confronted the Mad Titan in his garden. If he could have ripped him apart with his bare hands, he would have.
“You murdered trillions!” he yelled, letting his fury propel his fist forward.
Thor’s anger was directed into the swing of Stormbreaker that decapitated Thanos.
“I went for the head,” Thor said, before stumbling out of the hut. Bruce could hear him retching outside. He would have gone to him, comforted him, but he was frozen in place, eyes fixed on the head resting on the floor.
Nebula, face splattered with her father’s blood, reached out with a trembling hand and closed his eyes.
It was in that moment of finality that Bruce realized the Hulk wasn’t coming back.
“Pep’s pregnant.” Tony’s words rang out in the room where the remaining Avengers stood. The grief on his friend’s face was evident, mixed with apprehension and some excitement. The announcement of Pepper’s pregnancy brought mixed feelings for Tony after the loss of Peter Parker. Tony was never confident in his parenting in the best of times, and after watching a kid that he considered a son fade to dust… well, this was difficult for him.
Muttered congratulations followed the announcement. All of the Avengers were tired, Bruce included. Bone tired. The last few months had spent them, drained them, as they tried to help the world heal. The governments of the world were in tatters, barely holding on. Crime was rampant, people were displaced and mourning the loss, and every other world in the universe was in the same condition. It was all too much. So it was difficult for Bruce to feel the excitement that maybe he should have at the announcement of a child.
“I’ll be taking a step back,” Tony followed. This was met with a silence.
“What do you mean, a step back?” Steve said. The tension between Steve and Tony was still in full swing, despite their attempts to be civil with one another. Bruce was too tired to think about that in detail. He’d been gone, when everything happened between those two. You’d think the end of the world would bring them back together, but it seemed to have the opposite effect.
“A step back from the team. I have to... I have to focus on my family.” Tony’s voice was desperate, nearly pleading. Walking away from a fight was never his strong suit. He carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, quite literally. But his loss changed him. Bruce barely recognized the man anymore.
There was some back and forth, but the decision was made. Tony was set, and in the end, none of them could stop him.
Bruce wouldn’t see Tony again until Morgan was born, and then only briefly.
The rest of the Avengers tried to continue on. Steve and Natasha were the only two who did so with any success. Natasha tried to get him to join them, said that she wanted him there, said that she needed him, missed him. But Bruce looked at her now and felt nothing. He only felt himself falling, falling after she pushed him. So he refused.
Thor stayed, for a time. Bruce lived in the compound too. He had nowhere else to go, even if he wasn’t a part of the Avengers anymore. They ran into each other once a day, going through the routine of asking how the other was, giving the same false answer.
Thor knew there was something wrong with Bruce. Bruce could see it in his eyes, could feel the gaze that followed him whenever he was in proximity to the god. Part of him wanted to open up, Part of him wanted to collapse into Thor’s arms, wanted to cry, wanted to scream. The Hulk was gone. The Hulk wasn’t coming back. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Thor had enough on his shoulders.
“It's my fault,” the god told him one night. They found each other early in the morning, after midnight. Thor was drunk. Bruce didn’t drink, not really, it was too risky. But where was the risk now?
So he joined him, swigging a bottle of whiskey that they passed back and forth. Bruce’s inhibitions were growing fuzzy, and it was difficult to stop himself from staring at Thor, watching the way his lips closed around the bottle as he drank.
“What?” he asked, shaken from his daze. “What's your fault?”
“This. All of it.” Thor gestured, a broad sweep of his hand that seemed to encompass the entire world.
“Come on. You know that’s not true,” Bruce protested.
“Isn’t it? I could have stopped him. I got through. I aimed wrong. I was wrong. And I failed.”
Even now, Thor’s voice was unbreakable, like stone.
“Thor-” Bruce’s hand reached out of its own accord, settling on Thor’s shoulder. Thor leaned into the touch, ever so slightly, and Bruce’s fingers clenched.
“If the blame lies with you, then it lies with all of us,” he said quietly. “We all failed to stop Thanos.”
Thor shook his head. “None of you could have. I was the only one with the power, with the weapon, to strike the final blow.”
“Sure, but did any of us succeed in getting you to the point where you could strike that blow?”
Thor turned to him then, eyes settling on Bruce’s face. Bruce still didn’t know where he got the other eye. His guess was the racoon.
“You did what you could, my friend,” he said gently. Thor was so capable of kindness, Bruce noted, so inherently kind, to everyone except himself. “No one could have asked you for more.”
“The same goes for you,” Bruce said stubbornly. Thor didn’t refute the statement, but Bruce knew he didn’t believe.
“Bruce…” he said, a line forming between his eyes. “I know there’s something you aren’t telling me.”
His words struck a chord deep in Bruce’s chest.
“There’s probably a lot of things I’m not telling you,” Bruce said, a sad attempt at a joke. Thor didn’t laugh.
“I wish to help. If I can.”
“It’s not…” Bruce trailed off. He removed his hand from Thor’s shoulder, and he felt the loss at once.
“It’s not something that can be helped.”
The look on Thor’s face wasn’t one that Bruce would forget.
Four months after the Snap, Thor came to Bruce. His breath was coming quickly, and his eyes were alight for the first time in months. For a moment, he looked like the Thor that Bruce had first met, the Thor with the fire that burned in his chest.
“They’re here. Brunnhilde, the others-”
Bruce shot to his feet. “The Asgardians?”
Thor nodded wordlessly.
“Will you come?” he asked. He was standing close to Bruce, too close. The scientist could feel the heat from Thor’s body, and he had to tilt his head to meet his eyes.
“Of course I’ll come.”
Of course, it wasn’t just the two of them. The Asgardian ship had been cleared for landing, somehow- probably due to the chaos of the world governments, but Thor couldn’t be allowed to approach the Asgardians alone. Steve went with him, and a full regiment of what was left of the military.
Brunnhilde was the first to emerge from the ship. Her face was grim, and Bruce saw her hand stray towards the sword at her hip.
“We come in peace,” she declared. “We are refugees. Our home is gone, and we seek aid.”
Before anyone could stop him, Thor was striding forward. A general followed him. When Bruce tried to approach, Steve held him back.
“I don’t think this is for us,” he said. When Bruce looked at Thor, he agreed. Thor was a king again, clear as day, and Bruce didn’t belong by the side of a king.
The conversation was hushed, more mutters than anything. But it ended well. The announcement was made. The Asgaurdians would live as refugees, establish themselves in a colony on earth. There was space now, with half the planet gone. There were enough resources. In return, the Asgardians would share their knowledge of magic and science. Brunnhilde didn’t look happy about that, but she rarely did look happy.
The military remained, keeping a perimeter around the ship. There would be more discussions in the coming days- where they would go, the logistics of the colony setup. But for now, the Asgardians simply needed to recover.
Thor was aboard the ship before Bruce could blink. He followed, and was intercepted by Brunnhilde. A small smile graced her face.
“Hey big guy,” she said fondly, sweeping him into a hug. He could feel the strength in her arms.
“I’m glad you made it,” she said in hushed tones.
“Me too,” Bruce said automatically. She snorted, but her grim expression from earlier returned quickly.
“Come on. He’ll need you.”
She strode onto the ship. Bruce frowned, but followed.
So few. There were so few of them left. The loss hit Bruce like a physical thing, taking his breath away. Asgard had been a thriving civilization. After Ragnarok, they hadn’t thrived, but they had survived. Then Thanos. Then the Snap.
He spotted Thor right away. He was crouched next to a woman, speaking to her in soothing tones as she clutched at his hand. They looked weak, pale and hungry. Even Brunnhilde, now that he looked at her, had a pallor to her face.
Bruce felt a grip on his hand. He looked down. A man sat on the ground near him, dark eyes staring up at him.
“Doctor Banner,” he said, wonder in his face. “You survived.”
Bruce nodded, trying not to let his surprise show. The Asgardians knew him, credited him in part with the survival of their people. Bruce still wasn’t used to that. He had saved earth, sure, a few times, but the people of earth were terrified of him. There was none of that same fear in the Asgardians, only gratitude.
Bruce knelt next to the man, scanning him for injuries. He looked unharmed, only weak.
“Do you know how many of you…” Bruce said, trailing off. What was he trying to say? Died? Are left?
“Not many,” the man said, his face falling. “My daughter… she…”
He turned his head, hiding his grief. “But I am luckier than some. My son survives. He is speaking with the king.”
Sure enough, a younger man bearing a strong resemblance to him was standing near Thor, speaking to him in hushed tones.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Bruce said softly.
“We have all suffered great loss,” the man said, looking at Bruce with eyes too keen for his liking. “I am sorry for yours.”
Bruce managed to stammer out some form of gratitude, then excused himself. He followed Thor like a shadow for hours. The king seemed to be determined to speak to each surviving member of his people, no matter how long it took or the toll it extracted from himself. Every once in a while, he would look up, eyes seeking Bruce. Bruce wasn’t sure what he was searching for, but when they locked eyes, Thor seemed to stand straighter, speak more confidently. So he stayed by his side, helping where he could, offering what comfort he was able.
It was evening by the time they finished. The Asgardians received medical care, food, and water. The next few weeks would be filled with negotiations, attempts to find them a home. Thor finally left the ship, if only to get some fresh air, and Bruce followed in his wake. Thor stood as still as a statue, but Bruce noticed the tremble in his friend’s hands.
“Thor?” he asked quietly, moving to his side. Thor was staring at the ground, face set, eyes wide. If anyone could recognize the signs of an oncoming panic attack, it was Bruce.
“I-” Thor started, then stopped, looking around at the swarms of people surrounding the ship. Bruce understood, and he gingerly took Thor’s arm, leading him to a more secluded spot.
“So few. So few of them.” Thor’s voice was hoarse, pained, and Bruce tightened his grip.
“I can’t help them. I failed them twice already. Three times. I can’t help them.” The god’s breath started coming more quickly, approaching hyperventilation. Bruce placed a hand on his chest, over his heart. Thor’s eyes came up, finally, to meet his. Then he moved, and Bruce was captured in his embrace, Thor’s head buried in his neck, shoulders hunched. He was crying.
Bruce did the only thing he could do. He held on, anchoring Thor in the storm.
Time continued to pass. The Asgardians settled in a fishing village in Norway- one that was sparsely populated before the Snap, and after… well, it was easy enough to convince the remaining fishermen to accept the Asgardians, especially when they saw the more than human strength that they possessed. Thor was busy constantly,. Bruce knew that he would be leaving, but he still hated the idea. He himself was still living in the compound with Steve and Natasha, but Thor was really the only person keeping him tied to this reality.
But it would be selfish to ask Thor to stay. So when the god told him he was leaving, he let him go.
“You could come with me,” Thor said, unexpectedly, before he left. He looked at Bruce, and his eyes were almost… pleading. “We would welcome you back, if you wanted.”
Bruce was tempted. He would be lying to say that he wasn’t. But as much as he felt adrift in the Avengers compound, the idea of going back to the Asgardians without the Hulk felt worse.
“I’ll come and visit,” he said instead, trying to deflect. Thor’s shoulders slumped incrementally.
“I don’t like the idea of you here by yourself,” he said, taking a step closer to Bruce. “I worry for you.”
Bruce laughed and shifted uncomfortably, scratching the back of his neck. “Don’t be. I’m not alone, anyway. Steve and Nat are here. Rhodey’s around. I’ll be fine. You should focus on your people.”
“Bruce.” Thor’s tone was gentle, but his gaze was firm. “You are one of my people. You are one of the saviors of Asgard. And one of the few people I have left. I will worry about you if I so choose.”
Damn, Thor was making this difficult. Bruce so badly wanted to give in, to let Thor worry, to let down his goddamn walls for just a second. But that would be selfish. And he didn’t deserve the god’s concern.
“I’ll be ok. I have some stuff I need to sort out, anyway.”
With the second refusal, Thor backed off, but Bruce could see his disappointment.
“You will visit, yes? You swear?”
“Very well.” Thor laid a hand on Bruce’s shoulder. “If not, Brunnhilde or I will come and drag you back ourselves.”
Bruce let himself smile at the image. And then Thor was gone.
With Thor’s departure, Bruce was forced to confront the reality that the Hulk was gone. He’d been snapped, vanished with half of the universe. And now Bruce was alone. The voice in his head was gone. If he got hurt, he would stay hurt. There was no Other Guy to save him now. He was on his own.
He thought he could come to terms with it. After all, he hated having the Hulk in his head. This should be a blessing, right? A blessing in disguise. He could live a normal life, try to settle down without worrying about destroying a city if his heart rate got too elevated. And while the Hulk had been a large part of his superhero persona, Banner helped too. Just in different ways. So he could still help, and he tried to throw his energy into that, into helping the world rebuild.
Except, despite the incredible problems the world was facing… no one seemed to need him. No one was interested in Bruce’s help. Even Steve and Natasha, who were helping with rebuilding and crime rates, respectively, were at a loss when it came to him.
He was adrift. Fully and entirely adrift.
Then the realization came to him. Yes, the Snap was irreversible. Yes, no one was able to bring people back without the stone. But the Hulk wasn’t a person, not in that way. He existed inside of Bruce, his body was Bruce’s body. Maybe there was a way to get him back.
He approached it scientifically- at first. The first step was obviously gamma radiation, trying to recreate the experiment where the Hulk first emerged. These experiments kept him occupied for months, at least. But the longer the experiments went on without success, the more desperate Bruce got.
The tipping point came when Thor reached out. Thor had been trying to contact Bruce for some time, Bruce knew- he’d seen the messages, talked to him a few times. He ended each conversation by asking Bruce to visit. Bruce’s answer was always the same. He had things to do here, but he would when he could.
He wasn’t sure why this message was what put him over the edge. It wasn’t any different than the others he had received. Maybe it was the months of failure, the exhaustion that he felt- he still wasn’t sleeping- or the deep sense of shame that was beginning to come to the surface. Who could say?
The message was a photo, a picture of Brunnhilde resting on a cliffside, beer in her hand. She was wearing a flannel and jeans, and her hair was back in a braid. She looked more peaceful than Bruce had seen her in some time. Thor was the one who had taken the picture, but he wasn’t in it.
Asgard misses you, my friend , the message read. Bruce felt himself tearing up. He placed the phone down with shaking hands, the edges clattering on the table. Then he collapsed, bringing his knees to his chest, resting his forehead on top of them as he tried to breathe.
He missed them too. But he couldn’t go back. Not as he was. He was damaged now, useless. Incomplete. How could he face them?
Bruce left the compound two weeks after receiving the message. He needed to be… removed. He was dragging the others down, he could tell. Steve and Natasha stopped laughing or smiling whenever he walked into the room, and he knew exactly why. He looked terrible, bags under his eyes, pallid skin. He hadn’t smiled since Thor left. And his friends’ moments of joy were so few and far between that he hated himself for ruining even a single one.
And he knew that if they knew what he had planned, they wouldn’t let him go through with it. So he left.
He visited Tony, on his way. He got a place in Montana, secluded, in the woods, so he wouldn’t be able to come and see his friend for a while. Tony’s daughter, Morgan, had been born a month ago. Time was a strange thing. But one of the good things, the few good things, about the Hulk being gone was that he didn’t have to worry about being around the kid. She was safe around him. That felt nice.
Tony greeted him with open arms, as he always did, but his eyes scanned Bruce analytically. That was one of the dangers in coming to visit Tony- the man was too smart for his own good. He would be surprised if Tony hadn’t guessed what he was trying to do.
“So, how long are you gonna be gone?” Tony asked, watching Bruce cradle Morgan.
“I’m, uh, not sure,” Bruce admitted. “I just need some time… away.”
Tony hummed. “I get that. It could be good for you. Getting some rest. You look like shit.”
Bruce raised an eyebrow. “I know. You shouldn’t swear in front of the baby.”
“Ah, she doesn't know what I’m saying. When she’s a couple months older she probably will. She’s gonna be a genius, I can already tell.” Tony’s fondness for his daughter crept into his voice, striking a pang in Bruce’s chest.
Bruce left after lunch, tapping Morgan’s nose and giving Pepper a hug. Tony walked him out to the car.
“Be careful,” he said, pulling Bruce into a one armed hug. “I know something’s wrong. You can reach out if you need anything, ok? You’re part of my family too.”
Bruce gave a lopsided smile, but his heart wasn’t in it. “Thanks, Tony.”
He drove nearly without sleep to Montana, pulling over a couple of times for a power nap, but he was used to running on fumes. He felt a palpable sense of relief when the cabin came into sight. It was perfect. At least, for what he needed.
The Hulk came out when Bruce was in danger. He tried the gamma radiation, tried it for months. Maybe the Hulk needed a little extra nudge to show himself.
It was time to be angry. It was time to be reckless.
It turned out that being reckless was more difficult for Bruce than he thought it would be. His first month in Montana was spent resting. Sleeping. Reading and eating. Getting himself to a more base state of existence. It didn't help him think anymore clearly, but his body didn’t feel like it was being torn apart at the seams.
Thor’s communication had slowed over the last month, and continued to slow the longer Bruce stayed in Montana. This only felt like a confirmation to the scientist, a confirmation that without the Hulk, he was worse than useless to his friends. And it only steeled his decision.
He started with small things. He still had some sense of self preservation- he wanted to bring the Hulk back, not die. So he held himself underwater, drove too fast, burned his hand on a stove.
Nothing worked. So he worked up to larger things. And one day, a few months after arriving at the cabin, he went too far.
Cliff diving seemed like a good idea at the time. There would be water below, so he wouldn’t die, but the fall could trigger the Hulk. What he didn’t anticipate was how hard he would hit the water.
He woke up in the hospital, to a surprisingly familiar face. Two of them, actually. The first was Tony’s. His friend still had his unshakable look of exasperation on his face, but there was something darker behind his eyes. The second was Brunnhilde, who was doing absolutely nothing to hide the fury in her expression.
“Hey, buddy,” Tony said. “You took a bit of a fall.”
“A bit of one?” Brunnhilde said in a biting tone. Tony shot her a look.
“You can yell at him on the way back, your majesty,” he said. The nickname was said in a joking way, but something about it made Bruce frown. “For now, he needs to rest until we can move him.”
Brunnhilde looked like she was going to say something else, but instead she stormed out of the room.
“How’d you…” Bruce said, voice rasping. His throat and chest were burning.
“You got lucky. Some hiker was going by the lake you apparently flung yourself into. And one of the nurses here recognized you. They took a chance in contacting me.”
“I called her. Tried to reach Thor, but she was the one who picked up. I get the impression she’s kind of in charge there.”
Bruce frowned. “Not Thor?”
Tony shrugged. “I can’t say. I haven’t been there. But you’re going there after this.”
Bruce tried to sit up, but started coughing. “No, I’m-”
“You’re going to New Asgard if I have to drag you there myself.” Tony’s voice was steel. “Or I’ll have Brunnhilde do it. I think she’d relish the chance. She’s pissed.”
Tony sighed, raking a hand through his hair. “I know what’s going on. I haven’t said anything, and I won’t, but… he’s gone, right?”
Bruce stiffened, and didn’t answer.
“It's cool if you don’t want to talk about it. But the risk taking, the near death experience… it seems like the only explanation. So I’m not letting you stay here by yourself. And Thor seems to be the only one who gets you right now.”
Bruce’s fist clenched at his side. “Does he know?”
Tony shrugged. “Not unless Brunnhilde told him.”
Brunnhilde had, in fact, told him, as Bruce found out on the plane to Norway. The shorter woman hadn’t really spoken most of the trip, and Bruce was happy to stay in a sullen silence.
“I had to stop him from coming, you know.” her voice rang out in the silence. Bruce didn’t respond.
“He tried to get in contact with you. Often. He cares about you. He would have flown here himself if I let him.”
“Why didn’t you?’ Bruce asked.
“You’ll see when we get there. He’s not…. In a place where that was reasonable.”
Bruce looked up at that, worry crossing his face. “Is he ok?”
Brunnhilde laughed darkly. “Are any of us?”
She met his eyes for the first time. “Why’d you do that? What were you thinking?”
Bruce shrugged. “Does it matter?”
“Of course it matters!” she hissed. “Of course it does! You’re my friend, Bruce, I care about you. I don’t do that often. If there’s something wrong I want to know about it.”
He looked at her, really looked at her, for the first time since the hospital. The peaceful Brunnhilde from the photo Thor sent him months ago was gone. Her face was drawn, lines between her brows, and there was a fatigue behind her eyes that made his heart hurt for her.
“I-” he almost blurted it out then. Brunnhilde was a friend. And a friend of the Hulk. Maybe she deserved to know. But he still couldn’t make himself form the words.
“I can’t talk about it,” he admitted. “I’m sorry.”
Brunnhilde let out a long breath through her nose. “Fine. You don’t have to. But if you ever do anything like that again-”
“I’ll tell you first,” Bruce said, a small smile playing on his lips. She jabbed a finger at him.
“You fucking better.”
Some part of him settled again, some part of him that had been adrift for the past months. Maybe he should have come to New Asgard in the first place.
New Asgard was beautiful. Set into a cliffside, overlooking the ocean- it was a peaceful place. And the Asgardians certainly deserved some peace. It was evening by the time they arrived, the sky just beginning to darken. There was a small airport above the town, probably about a mile away, and the plane touched down in a small field.
“Are you ok to walk back, or should we drive?” Brunnhilde asked. Bruce did a quick self assessment, and while he still felt weak, he thought a walk might do him good. Besides, that would delay the moment he would have to face Thor.
“Walk,” he said. The two of them strolled down the hill. They ran into a few Asgardians along the way. Bruce was still surprised at the excitement that shone from them as they recognized Bruce. A look from Brunnhilde, however, kept them at bay, and they restrained themselves to a nod or a friendly greeting.
“So, you really are running the place, huh?” Bruce said. The moment they stepped down, Brunnhilde’s authoritative presence had become clear.
“More or less,” she said, her tone grim. It was clear she didn't want to expand on that, but Bruce pushed anyway.
“What’s going on with Thor?”
She sighed. “Let’s just say the two of you deserve each other. Both godsdammned messes. So I’m gonna throw you in a house and see what happened. I don’t know what else to do.”
The rest of the walk was in silence, until they finally reached a house near the water. It was a humble home, and it didn’t look well kept. The other Asgardians seemed to give it a wide berth. Bruce frowned.
“Go in. I don’t think he wants to see me right now,” Brunnhilde said, jerking her head towards the house. “I’ll check in with you tomorrow.”
She walked off, leaving Bruce waiting on the doorstep. He could have walked away. He could have left. But he couldn’t deny that there was a part of him that desperately wanted to see Thor. So he took a deep breath, and knocked.
“Leave me be, Brunnhilde,” Thor’s voice boomed from inside. Bruce knocked again. This time, there was no response. Bruce felt some irritation blooming in his chest. He was tired, he’d been dragged halfway across the world, and he wanted to sleep. He opened the door and stepped inside.
The house smelled like alcohol. The smell nearly made him retch. Would it kill Thor to open a window every once in a while?
Then a worse thought hit him. Was Thor drunk? Bruce wasn’t certain he could deal with that at the moment. But he kept walking in. The house was dimly lit, besides the living room. The TV was on, and flickering lights came from the doorway.
“I said leave,” Thor’s voice rang out as Bruce stepped through the door. Bruce didn’t answer, just looking Thor up and down. His hair was long and bedraggled, tangles evident even from where Bruce stood. Beer bottles littered the area, but, to Bruce’s relief, Thor didn’t look drunk at that moment. His eyes, though they were trained on the TV, were clear and lucid. He was slumped in a chair, face blank.
He looked terrible. But he was still Thor.
“I'm under strict orders not to leave,” Bruce said quietly. His voice was still raspy. Thor’s breath caught in his throat, and then he was on his feet and in front of Bruce in a flash. His eyes scanned Bruce’s face as his hands came up to cup his chin, fingers trembling.
“Bruce,” he breathed out. Bruce was frozen in place, like a deer in the headlights.
“Are you all right? Brunnhilde said you’d been hurt,” he said, thumb stroking the side of Bruce’s neck. Bruce finally let himself breathe, a long, shuddering breath. A weight was lifted off of his shoulders. Thor didn’t know what happened. Not all of it.
“I’m all right,” he confirmed.
“What happened, my friend? Why didn’t-”
Bruce reached up, covering Thor’s hand with his own. “I don’t want-”
“Of course,” Thor said automatically. “It can wait.”
There was stubble on his cheeks, Bruce noticed for the first time.
“I am only glad to see you safe.” The sincerity in Thor’s voice nearly made Bruce tear up.
“Uh, and you? How are you?” Bruce managed to stutter out. Thor stiffened, just slightly.
“I am well. How could I be otherwise? My people are safe, and you are here.”
Bruce raised an eyebrow at him. Thor’s eyes left his, and Bruce felt the loss like a physical thing.
“It can wait,” Bruce said, repeating Thor’s own words. The look of relief in Thor’s face was obvious.
And it did wait. It waited for a long time.